African football is in a boom period right now, and Sunderland have been blessed to have some of the best from the continent gracing our club at the moment; Asamoah Gyan, John Mensah, Sulley Muntari & Stephane Sessegnon. However, for all these star names, spare a thought for the likes of Francis Tambo, or one of the other thousands of African ‘footballers’ stranded around Europe having been promised the riches that would see themselves and their families get out of poverty...
Conservative guesses estimate that there are up to 20,000 players like Tambo, stranded around Europe with no money, no shelter, no clothing, and no way back to their homeland, never mind a shot at the big time as they were promised. Promised by who? Agents; in the loosest sense of the word, who visit the slums of Sierra Leone, Ghana & Senegal hoping to find the next Gyan or Sessegnon.
Over on these shores we tend not to think too highly of agents, preferring to see them as money grabbing leeches who will force a player into anything to get their 10%. But by the standards set in Africa and France (where most these players end up), the likes of Willy McKay, Paul Stretford & Eric Hall are positively saints.
In an interview with Mariana Van Zeller, in the fascinating documentary ‘Soccers Lost Boys’ an unnamed 18 year old, now in France, once of Senegal, recants a brutal story of promises broken, and the lengths he must go to try and achieve his dream of one day playing professional football.
In this he mentions that he wants to ‘fight’ and ‘kill’ the man who took him away from his family as a youngster, the ‘agent’ who routinely beats him, and has forced him into performing sexual acts in return for a miserly 20 Euros and a roof over his head.
And to think we looked down on the previously mentioned Stretford for forcing Wayne Rooney into handing in a half-arsed transfer request only a few months ago.
In the slums of Paris, where many of these players end up, black market football matches are set –up and played on pitches that would be sub-standard for a Sunday pub team. At these throngs of ‘agents’ from around the world are invited to watch and ‘buy’ these players from their keeper.
This is how the predatory agents who plucked players from Accra, Dakar and Freetown make their money. If the player goes unsold, they are abandoned. It’s no loss to the agent, but it’s a huge heartache for the players; alone and homeless in a foreign country.
There’s no other way of putting things, it is modern day slavery.
The global players organisation, FIFPro, have expressed their concerns about the exploitation of youngsters in Africa, and the general secretary Theo Van Seggelen admitting "There is still a lot of work to do and the responsibility is enormous."
A lot of work is being done though. In particular in Ghana & Sierra Leone, with the establishment in 1999 of the Right To Dream Academy. Founded by former Manchester United Scout, Tom Vernon, the academy in Ghana offers a clean, safe and well maintained place for young footballers to develop their skills as well as being fully educated.
The Right To Dream Academy is also starting to see results. King Gyan Osei, now at Toronto FC, via Fulham, won a scholarship to the academy, and later moved on to Dunn School in California, before signing for the Londoners on his 18th birthday.
Osei also made his debut for the Ghanaian national team in 2008 whilst on the books at Fulham, although he was on loan at Germinal Beerschot at the time, where the youngster made over 50 appearances, scoring twice.
A little closer to home we have Abu Mohammed, who also graduated from the Right To Dream Academy, and is now on the books at Manchester City, and currently on loan at Stormsgodset, in Norway.
Back in 2006, Abu was much like any other talented 14 year old in Ghana. He could have ended up the way of Tambo, stranded somewhere in Europe, but luckily the Right To Dream Academy came calling.
Abu’s parents are farmers, and barely had enough money to send his sister to school, never mind let their son dream of becoming a professional footballer. Luckily for him though, Vernon saw something in the lad, and offered him a contract. The rest as they say, is history, and by the age of 18, he was signed with Manchester City.
Abu recalls the day he went for trials back in Ghana; "I was scared people would laugh at me, I took my belongings to the trial in a polythene bag." Even if they did laugh, nobody is now.
Osei: From Ghana to Canada, via England & Belgium.
Mohammed: From Ghana to Norway, via England.
This is the sort of travelling we would like young African footballers to undertake, a safe and educational journey.
We must hope no more follow the route of Francis Tambo, last spotted alive in Morocco in 2010, on a promise from a dodgy agent filling their own, and their family’s minds with ideas of fame and fortune that are simply undeliverable.
Gyan, Mensah, Muntari & Sessgnon might all have fallen down the wrong path, but we should be thankful that they, along with a select few others avoided a fate akin to that of Tambo and thousands of others.